Group Sex and Tel Aviv: What Goes on in the City's Erotic Workshops

The Erotic Archetype, run by an Israeli television director, is meant to expose hidden erotic mechanisms and help realize sexual potential

A sex workshop at the home of 'sex mediator' Shahar Berlowitz, May 2018.
Shahar Berlowitz

The people gathered in an apartment in central Tel Aviv are asked to arrange themselves in a living room based on their satisfaction with their sex lives. The most satisfied stick near the window, the frustrated move toward the door to the roof.

I think it over a bit, take a few symbolic steps in the frustrated direction but then stay in the center. One woman moves away from everybody else, proclaiming her long bout with sexual frustration. This is just the warm-up, a little exercise aimed at easing the tension among the strangers who have turned up.

A bit later, in alternating pairs, we do intimacy exercises. One woman asks for her face to be touched. “It should be really delicate, but arousing” – she tries to give me specific instructions, as she was asked to do by the facilitator.

In another exercise we’re asked to whisper to a random partner, a total stranger, a secret fantasy, preferably one linked to that person. Later in that exercise, everyone is asked to slip their hands into their pants and look the other person in the eye.

The last exercise, which is carried out in threesomes, is a kind of realization of a fantasy. This time I’m doing the exercise with two women; one has been married for a decade now, the other is a divorcée who has started a new relationship. For one of them, this is the first workshop; the other has been flitting from one workshop to another for two years now.

Both are here on their own. Their fantasy has more to do with each other but they’re happy for the chance to bring me in. We lie on the cushions in the living room, lightly caressing. There’s no nudity, no touching of private parts. Nothing is too sexual, but the intimacy is high.

This is the living room of television director Shahar Berlowitz, who in his confident voice is facilitating the workshop. He sets boundaries and lifts tensions, but he also knows how to give the necessary push to remove another inhibition, to break through another self-imposed barrier. To do something you hadn’t thought you’d do.

The descriptions from inside the workshop might sound simplistic, even sleazy, especially when taken out of the context of the four structured hours that include steps for processing each activity.

The workshop is called the Erotic Archetype and its aim is to expose hidden erotic mechanisms and help realize sexual potential. “But when you come to your first workshop, the content is less important. Important is the fact of participating in something like this, the move out of your comfort zone,” Berlowitz says.

Television director and 'sex mediator' Shahar Berlowitz, May 2018.
Michael Topyol

For more than a year now he has been leading workshops like this, after a stint as an assistant to facilitators. “But this is the first time I wasn’t tense before a workshop,” he says. “I’m glad that it's become something natural for me.”

The participants at my event, 20 men and 10 women, also seem pretty relaxed, except for one woman in an advanced stage of pregnancy who shares her hesitations, though it’s clear they dissipate quickly. Everyone arrived on their own, except for one couple who thought it was a couples workshop but quickly fitted in and even skipped over the “boundaries discussion” Berlowitz recommended and quickly moved on to other people.

The rules for touching are delineated in advance, everything happens by mutual agreement, and if you feel any discomfort, you utter the code word “avocado” and the touching stops.

Culturally, socially and financially wealthy, Berlowitz, 44, is a busy television director. “I find a lot of similarity between my work as a director of reality shows and facilitating the workshops,” he says. “I take a group of people, give them tasks designed to shake them up, and have them undergo a certain experience. When I construct a lineup for a reality show and for a workshop, there’s more in common than you might think.”

Berlowitz describes meaningful sexual experiences at 19 when his girlfriend fell ill with cancer and wanted to celebrate life; they investigated their sexuality until she recovered. Later came tantra practices and erotic writing that remained in the desk drawer. But his current position as a nearly full-time workshop facilitator and “erotic mediator” came after the first time he attended a panel of therapists at a small Tel Aviv studio and launched a relationship with the woman moderator.

That relationship didn’t last very long but exposed him to the world of therapists and workshops and lowered inhibitions. “I thought that if I became a sex therapist, a surrogate, what woman would want to be in a relationship with me? It’s sort of on the border of prostitution,” he says.

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From the Instagram page of the International ISTA Tribe

“And then I had a girlfriend who herself was a sex therapist, and I met deaconesses, love priestesses, who from the legal perspective are prostitutes though actually they’re therapists. I said, wow, they aren’t weird, they aren’t on the margins of society, they’re people who are culturally, socially and financially rich, and that became my social group.”

The group is part of a larger community that includes people who have attended seminars at the International School of Temple Arts, an international organization that gives seminars on personal development though work with sexuality. Today about 500 community members have done the training and about 100 more join each year.

“The course is the most extreme reality, fun and crazy. I prefer not to say what happens there at the physical level, but they encourage you to jump off cliffs. You learn how to address your fears, and sexuality is a part of the space,” Berlowitz says.

“It’s a very pioneering bunch of people who’ve chosen to live on the edge of conventionality but haven’t isolated themselves from the world and want to bring about profound social change in an area that’s controversial.”

The professor of desire

At the Miami Beach Community Center in Ramat Gan, the participants are trying to arrange themselves based on their degree of sexual openness. Conservative monogamists to the left, orgy graduates to the right, where they argue about who’s more extreme. On the other side they joke about their naivete: “We’re the virgins.”

Later, the couples-workshop participants tell what brought them here; some want to open their relationships, others are looking for adventures as a couple, and some are mainly curious. Some couples talk about how their sexual desires are different, as if they were consumer preferences. (“The mantra at the moment is to bring in another woman.”)

The group here is older, 30 to 60. Not so hippy, not so hipster, mostly longish-term couples. This is a less daring and briefer workshop, which Berlowitz conducts in the framework of “Cosmic Lovers,” a festival of “intimate relations in the big city.” The workshop includes exercises in communication and openness aimed at neutralizing jealousy and bringing to the surface couples’ various needs.

“I’m not a therapist. I call myself an erotic mediator. In this workshop I give the couples tools to connect with their needs and desires. And I always suggest moving forward in accordance with the person who’s the less daring and wants to move the most slowly,” Berlowitz says.

“Gaps between couples exist with or without the workshop. The question is what you do with them. You can repress and wait until there’s a blow-up, or you can put things on the table,” he adds.

A scene from a Hebrew-language reality TV show directed by Shahar Berlowitz, 'Take Me Sharon.'
Ariel Schalit

“As you’ve seen, it’s not a bunch of sleazy men trying to push their wives and girlfriends into threesomes or open relationships. Despite all the stereotypes, women are the ones who lead these processes – it’s easier for women to talk about a lack of satisfaction.”

The workshops are varied, as are the participants. They range from short workshops of an hour and a half (mainly in the context of festivals like the one at the community center) to one-time workshops that last four hours. The cost of a workshop is around 100 shekels ($28) per participant. Some of the participants say they arrived “through the community” after taking part in Berlowitz’s workshops at festivals and events where he took part.

Others saw advertisements on Facebook or learned about the phenomenon though a more active search. “I’ve been married for more than a decade and I was searching the internet for a workshop about sexuality,” says a woman in her early 40s who took part in the workshop at Berlowitz’s home.

“My husband knows I’m here but he doesn’t really know what happens here, nor did I really know what to expect. After more than 10 years with someone, no matter how good it is together, you get to this place where you feel something is lacking and there’s a need to refresh, also sexually,” she adds.

“I’m not in a place for open relationships or really being with anyone else at the moment, but I’m curious about those possibilities, and after I looked at a number of workshops, this one seemed the best fit.”

At the conclusion of the workshop, the initial embarrassment was replaced by a desire to share. “It was more intimate and daring than I had thought it would be, and from my perspective the most exciting thing was that I found myself enjoying contact with strangers, which is something I hadn’t had for years and didn’t think could happen,” she says. “Now I need to figure out what to do with this.”

Geek love

Another participant, a single woman in her early 30s, offers a different motivation. “I’ve been having crap sex for years now. I don’t know why,” she says.

“I always blamed my partners, but I realized it wasn’t certain that the problem was with them. I don’t know if the solution for me is here, but I heard about this workshop from a friend and I decided to come. I already feel better with myself from the mere fact that I’m here, talking about it and trying deal with things that people usually repress,” she adds.

“Some of the exercises led me to understand some things about myself. For example, I liked it when someone exerted force on me or found that forbidden things pretty much turn me on.”

A young man who was at the workshop, a guy in his mid-30s, depicts the matter as another station on a journey to early self-discovery. “I left my job and I’m going to a lot of festivals, events and workshops now,” he says.

“This is a good way to collect experiences and get to know people, including girls, and you also learn things about yourself and become a more open person who’s willing to try things. I feel like I’m experiencing a kind of high from these things. It’s fun and it’s addictive.”

Berlowitz himself defines his audience thus: “It’s very varied but I can characterize two main groups. On the one hand, second-round people, 40-plus, who’ve followed the classical route of marriage, career, children, ended it with some kind of disappointment, found new love and now don’t want to repeat their mistakes. Then there’s the wave of geeks and hipsters. Mid-20s, early-30s.

“An audience that goes to Midburn,” he says, referring to Israeli’s equivalent of the Burning Man festival, “but isn’t New Age-y, many of them children of divorced parents who don’t see the monogamous model as a big deal and for whom the internet and consciousness-altering substances have opened up their curiosity.”

And then they come and you introduce yourself as a serial monogamist.

“Yes, I’m a monogamist but the concept of monogamy has changed. It used to be that it meant being with one partner all your life, and today it’s being with one partner at a time. There’s monogamy with soft edges, which is me, I suppose. I’ve never been in love with two people at the same time, and I don’t have that need. The polyamorists I know say that when they’re in a couple relationship they feel they’re lacking something. I don’t think monogamy is the perfect thing but I don’t have that inner conflict.”

Are you afraid that the workshops have gone out of control?

“I know what people imagine when you talk to them about sexual spaces, and I have no problem with wild sexual spaces, but I don’t aim for that, and the likelihood that it will happen is very low. A large part of my energy at every workshop is devoted to creating a safe space, where everything is done with verbal agreement in advance. In all the workshops I’ve given, there have only been two cases in which people came and told me it was too daring for them.

“And even them, it wasn’t in anger. I do feedback after every workshop and there’s always something like 20 percent of the people, men and women, who say they’d have wanted more sexuality. But I’d always rather have someone for whom it wouldn’t be sexual enough than people who feel it was too daring.”

Berlowitz is also working on an internet initiative to disseminate knowledge about sex. “To make a television format in this area excites me less at the moment. I’m setting up an internet platform for refreshing couples’ sex lives. It’s based on a questionnaire game I’ve developed that creates an erotic profile for users,” he says.

“By cross-checking the data from the members of the couple, we show them the unrealized potential and give them appropriate lessons. My big dream is to open an international online school of sexuality. Sex education is lacking in the world.”